by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
January 11, 2007
CAN VERMONT LEAD THE NATION?
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Being ahead of the pack and leading it are two very different things.
With its strong ethos of common sense, Vermont has been ahead of the nation on issues as diverse as slavery and civil unions. The question now is whether Vermont can lead.
In our capital city Montpelier last Wednesday, as the new Legislature opened for business, that was a prominent theme.
In her opening remarks, returning Speaker of the House Gaye Symington, a Democrat, pointed out that she is now one of three women Speakers at the state level. With some pride, she said she was going to Washington the next day to watch Nancy Pelosi, also a Democrat, take her historic oath and become the first female Speaker of the U.S. House.
Symington talked about the importance of role models for young women, and how Pelosi's success - as well as her own - allows young women to dream big dreams and reach for large opportunities.
Down the hall, the new (and former) President Pro Tem of the Senate, Peter Shumlin, also a Democrat, was talking of taking an even bigger role - one of helping to heal the nation. Shumlin claimed that the Bush Administration's war on Iraq was causing "the good will and moral decency" America earned in World War II to slip "into the distant memory of the world community."
Shumlin, whose business, Putney Student Travel, sends well-off students on cultural exchange programs around the world, travels frequently. He talked about being in places like France, Cuba and Vietnam and being ashamed of America's actions abroad.
"Red states vs. blue states; black and brown and yellow and red vs. white; heterosexuals vs. homosexuals; French fries vs. freedom fries; pro choice vs. pro life; strong on terror vs. soft on terror, weapons of mass destruction vs. none of the above: the rest of the world where I was traveling was seeing us as a divided, untrustworthy, aggressor nation," he said.
He also talked about the drastic and alarming climate changes we are experiencing in Vermont. And about the effects of globalization. He said he found young people in other countries eager to "learn and serve," while American states "have cannibalized each other by trying to offer incentives, tax credits and bribes to keep American jobs in America." If we don't do something dramatic and creative soon, he said, "The developing world will continue to eat our lunch."
Shumlin believes that Vermont's "moral imperative" is to lead the nation.
"If we succeed in being part of the solution, we can help to regain America's moral leadership and trust in the eyes of the rest of the world," he said. "If you join me in feeling that our country has lost its way; if you join me in understanding that the best days of the Industrial Revolution of the past century have migrated to other corners of the world; I ask you to join me in trying to mold economic and prosperity for Vermonters in this century from the bold mistakes of the last."
I was moved by these speeches, so I wondered what our governor, Jim Douglas, a Republican, had to say. He was having a press conference in his formal chamber, a large room with red velvet chairs and couches, a bright red carpet and walls filled with 18th and 19th Century portraits of former Vermont leaders - all men - in beards and sideburns, high collars and foulard ties.
It was the day before he was to be sworn in for his third term and give his own speech. So he just mumbled platitudes: "putting partisanship aside," "focus on what's important for the state," "bold initiatives," "renewable energy," "affordability," "addressing the property tax burden while maintaining the quality of our education."
The leadership of the nation was clearly not one of his priorities. And although I'm not a big fan of the governor - put him in sideburns, a high collar and a foulard tie and, mentally, he would fit in well with the men in the portraits - I have to give him some credit. A reporter asked what he thought of Shumlin's speech, and whether he, too, was ashamed of America.
It was like a bomb had gone off in the room. But mild-mannered Douglas, who has made two trips to Washington to sleep in the White House as Bush's personal guest, didn't miss a beat or rise to the bait. Instead, he pointed out that he, too, has disagreements with the current Administration and was, in fact, suing it to protect Vermont's clean air and water. He showed that in Vermont, even a Republican governor won't "red bait" or take a cheap shot. If that wasn't leadership, it was pretty good politicking.
As I write, the Imperial Emperor Bush is planning, in the face of widespread American antipathy to the Iraq war and world-wide disgust at the lynching of Saddam Hussein, to announce an escalation of troops there.
When Congress voted to invade Iraq, the entire Vermont delegation stood against it. The Brattleboro Reformer had a banner above it's editorials that said "Say No To War." Last year, Vermont led the nation in an impeachment drive. This year, it put a socialist in the U.S. Senate. Now, the newly reconfigured Vermont delegation will stand against escalation.
If leadership means taking a stand ahead of the pack, then Vermont has been leading for the last five years. If leadership is convincing others to take the same stand, then the next chapter of Vermont's history has yet to be written.
Carved in marble on the wall of the Statehouse, however, is this remarkable quote from Calvin Coolidge: "If the spirit of liberty should vanish in other parts of the union ... it could all be replenished from the generous store held be the people of this brave little state of Vermont."
A collection of Joyce Marcel's columns, "A Thousand Words or Less," is available through joycemarcel.com. And write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.